The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence designated April as Alcohol Awareness Month. With that in mind, I wanted to bring to you some information that I think would be of particular importance to many who consume alcohol and even for those who do not.
Alcohol has a huge role to play in whether we are closer to the optimal health end of the spectrum, somewhere in the middle of average health or at the other end of the spectrum in poor health.
Despite the many educational programs in schools, most in our society, both young and old still are not aware or choose to ignore the hard facts where alcohol is concerned. And can we blame them? I guess not, given the huge volume of chic, fun and exciting alcohol advertisements we have out there today. Not to mention how many times it is portrayed in movies, shows, music videos and more. Or how many misleading studies about the benefits of alcohol are presented to us also.
It is thus no wonder that the average teen has the mind set of “everybody drinks.” Well everybody does not drink. In fact it is estimated that, although drinking rates have risen in the past 2 decades, around 1/3rd of North Americans still do not consume any alcohol at all.
But in this article, let us put all that aside and just look towards the basics of science where alcohol metabolism by our body is concerned.
A Brief Definition of Alcohol
Despite the fact that alcohol today is socially acceptable, and is at the basis of most parties, celebrations, dining events and leisure time, we cannot negate the fact that it is not the most optimal substance to be put in our bodies.
In fact alcohol is legally classified as a drug – a psychoactive drug and as a toxin. Although most people in society are not chemistry scholars, most of us do realize that there are many types of alcohol out there, besides ethanol or ethyl alcohol. And none of them are suitable for intake by our body, as they are flat out poisonous. So how about the ethanol? Well, drink enough of it in a short period of time and it will kill you too. The only reason we feel so comfortable with it, is because most believe that the paradigm of “moderation” will save us and that the alcohol sold for human consumption is “not THAT dangerous.”
What my question always becomes to those who drink, is “why do you need to put a toxin into your body in ANY amount?”
Besides its more or less known toxicity, alcohol itself is derived from the fermentation of sugars in fruits, vegetables and most often grains. This small piece of information makes many feel extra comfortable with alcohol because they feel it is somehow “natural”. Well let us look at this a little deeper, the fruit is and was natural, the chemical by-product produced in the reaction is not.
Alcohol is also known as a depressant, contrary to what many think that it makes them “feel better.” Try drinking when you are sad or depressed and see how much worse, you often end up feeling.
Technically alcohol can also be classified as a nutrient, but only because it provides a source of energy. Alcohol contains about 7 calories per gram. That is almost twice as rich in calories as carbohydrates and proteins and a little less than fats. When you have an alcoholic beverage, you also have to consider its carbohydrate or protein content, and thus can see how quickly it becomes a high calorie item. In general there are over 100 calories in a standard drink, with some drinks having as many as 300 calories, something many people battling excess weight often forget.
So with these basics in mind let us now see how our body actually handles alcohol.
How is Alcohol Metabolized?
When alcohol is ingested into the body it makes contact with our mouth, throat and esophagus. Something that I will cover a little later, will explain the reason why people who drink regularly are at a higher risk of cancers in these 3 areas.
Alcohol then passes to the stomach, where about 20% of it is absorbed almost immediately into the blood stream, especially on an empty stomach. With food, absorption is delayed. This will explain too, why the effects of alcohol are so quickly felt most times.
The remainder of the alcohol passes through to the small intestine, where it is further absorbed.
Once alcohol enters the blood stream it is fair game in terms of where it will be carried. Although the body’s main goal is to get it to the liver and detoxify this substance, it will first circulate in the blood stream a bit, where it is delivered to various tissues, namely our brain, and hence that explains the effects we feel. Bottom line, we have to understand that alcohol has an effect on all cells in our body.
Our liver can metabolize or in this case detoxify about 1/3rd of an ounce of alcohol (about 8-10 grams of alcohol) per hour in a healthy adult, with generally speaking less so in females. This is less than 1 drink per hour to fully be cleaned out of our system, as there is typically ½ of an ounce of alcohol in a standard drink regardless of what it is.
So once it gets to the liver, what happens? Well mainly put alcohol is metabolized in our body like fat. Yes, you heard it. The body treats alcohol like fat. Using an enzyme known as alcohol dehydrogenase, the liver converts the metabolic by-products of alcohol into fatty acids. These may be stored in the liver or transported for storage in other tissues. So besides its rich energy content, is it any wonder why regular drinkers support what is commonly known as the “beer belly”?
This may all not be that bad, if most people had one drink per week or so and called it quits, but at most social events, that is completely not the case, with many people having multiple drinks in a relatively short amount of time. This increases the amount of alcohol circulating in the blood and the time that it spends there, leading to many ill health effects. In fact alcohol is causally related to more than 60 different medical conditions. Because the liver cannot keep up at this point, one may also start to experience an increase in urination frequency as the body tries to rid itself of the alcohol faster from the body.
The problem is that the more alcohol is put into our system, the more of a back log takes place, as the liver just cannot handle metabolizing more per hour. Physically at this point most people would be in what is called, an intoxicated state or “drunk”. If one should happen to continue drinking, such as in the cases of binge drinking, the body knows that it has to clear this substance out of our bodies faster than the liver, kidneys or urine can handle and that is usually the time that most people start to vomit. If this did not happen the alcohol would poison us.
If one however at this point still continues or manages to drink, the fate is usually going into a coma or death. This is sadly how so many college teens die, as alcohol is the leading cause of death among youth.
The After Effects
So without going into too much detail here, what are the effects of this alcohol in our bodies?
Well first and foremost as the alcohol is ingested, it has a direct toxic effect on the intestinal walls, as well as some role to play in the lining of the mouth, throat, esophagus and stomach. The exact role that alcohol plays in stomach cancer is not yet well understood, but what medical research agrees on is that alcohol has various indirect effects on increasing cancer of the stomach.
The toxic effect on the intestinal cells impairs absorption of other nutrients, mainly vitamins, such as vitamin B1. In fact alcohol in general during its metabolism strips the body of many nutrients and thus most alcoholics can be severely malnourished despite eating relatively normal diets.
With respect to the liver, most of us know that it takes the biggest beating when metabolizing alcohol, seeing as it is the only organ in the body able to deal with it. The more regularly we drink, the less efficient our liver becomes at detoxifying other substances in our environment, whether they be food, drink, air, etc. Alcohol in the blood and liver can also have a profound effect on many other drugs, increasing the effect of some, while decreasing the effect of others. Hence to be on the safe side, one should never drink while taking other medications. Even if their effect is not altered, it just causes even more stress to the liver.
Finally, with respect to the liver, regular or excessive drinking leads to an enlarged or what is also called a “fatty liver“, where the liver goes from its deep reddish-brown color and normal size to a white color and enlarged size. This is due to the accumulation of fat in the liver. It is not so much the excess fat from the alcohol, as it is a protective mechanism against the alcohol. If someone continues at this stage for about 5 years or more, especially when mixed with a high-fat diet and other drugs, the liver cells start dying. At this point a person is known to have cirrhosis of the liver which is irreversible.
The next organ to take a massive negative hit from the alcohol is our brain. The effects on our brain on a short-term basis occur in a hierarchical fashion related to the development of the brain. First goes our sense of judgement, then reaction time, followed by many other more serious functions that are disrupted or inhibited altogether.
On a long-term basis, yes, alcohol does kill brain cells. In fact this effect is most pronounced in youth, who can suffer permanent brain damage and impaired memory from heavy and regular bouts of drinking. And on top of all this, alcohol is addictive, especially so when used in times of stress or emotional hardship.
There are many more other negative ill effects related to alcohol, like DNA damage, increased overall cancer rates, decreased fertility, obesity, depressed immunity, mood and mental disorders and many more. However, those will be saved for another article in the future.
In the end, whether we drink or not, we have to realize that alcohol was not meant to be in our systems, at least not if one seeks optimal health. In my definition, it does not belong at all in any amounts in a natural and balanced lifestyle that focuses on optimal health.
The fact that our society and even doctors advertise it and recommend it does not negate the above facts. After all remember, it was not that long ago that doctors said it was okay to smoke. And with that in mind, my personal vision is that just like we woke up and came to grips with the toxic effects of cigarettes, we too will wake up and do the same with alcohol. Perhaps it will take a generation or two still, but it is not unrealistic to think that one day alcohol ads will be banned and more and more places will go alcohol-free.
In conclusion, it is one thing to responsibly consume the odd drink here and there, but quite another to fully out right abuse alcohol, especially to the point of alcoholism. Hence if it is you or someone else in your life that you know who could use more facts, support or help when it comes to freeing themselves from the dependency of alcohol, check out some of the support services below.
Together and through proper education we can bring out a higher version of health in people and help them live a happy life that is not dependant on a substance that takes away from their health and well-being.
Further Reading and Resources
Alcohol & Drug Information from the US Department of Health and Human Services
Controlling Abuse and Managing Use from The Laborer’s Health and Safety Fund of North America